Taking the Plunge

St. Louis' suburban cities have been competing for years to build the biggest and best places to play. Around here, keeping up appearances is serious business.

On a summer day in 1994, longtime Florissant Mayor James Eagan was touring the Blanchette municipal water facility in St. Charles. This wasn't your typical rectangular swimming pool. Built in 1991 at a cost of $1.8 million, the St. Charles pool came with two "otter" slides, floating inner tubes, a cargo net to climb across and a zero-depth-entry kiddie area with hoses and valves and fountains and three "shade shelters" -- plus a 25-yard lap pool for competitive swimmers. The new Blanchette facility had opened to record crowds in 1992, thousands of callers had flooded the city's parks department with questions and visitors were trekking to St. Charles from across the metro area, including Florissant, to experience the novelty of the region's first municipal water park.

With his city's outdoor pool aging and in need of replacement, Eagan wanted to see firsthand what all the hubbub in St. Charles was about. He encountered some of his own residents while he was on the tour -- and they gave him an earful. "They gave him a lot of trouble. They wanted to know: 'Why don't we have one?'" remembers St. Charles parks director Richard Ash, who was giving Eagan the grand tour.

Eagan boomed out his response. "We're going to build one," he vowed. "But ours will be bigger, nicer and better!"

Austin Klump (left), 2, and his brother Mike, 4, at the RiverChase aquatic center in Fenton
Jennifer Silverberg
Austin Klump (left), 2, and his brother Mike, 4, at the RiverChase aquatic center in Fenton

A year later, just as Eagan had promised, Florissant broke ground on its own water park, called the Koch Park Family Aquatic Center. The North County city used the same firm that designed the Blanchette pool, but Florissant's cost $500,000 more, and it had more bells and whistles: an 880-foot-long lazy river to float along in inner tubes -- the longest in the St. Louis area -- as well as an enclosed noodle-shaped slide that emptied into a "plunge" pool. Eagan, who died last year, proudly described the aquatic center as the "crown jewel of the Florissant parks system."

In the decade since St. Charles became the first city in the region to transform its city swimming pool into a water playground, huge multimillion-dollar aquatic parks have sprouted around the St. Louis suburban area. St. Charles now has three outdoor water parks. Webster Groves has one, as do Kirkwood, Maryland Heights, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury and O'Fallon, Mo. St. Peters has an indoor water park at the Rec-Plex, the first mega-recreation center in the region, but now so do Ballwin, Clayton and Richmond Heights. Fenton has indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities. Des Peres is planning an indoor/outdoor water park, and outdoor ones are planned or in the works in Manchester, Crestwood, Maplewood, Ballwin and Bridgeton.

Taken together, the tab for these water parks and recreation centers in the St. Louis area will hit nearly $150 million.

Though the Midwest hardly seems the place for trendsetters, the St. Louis area has become a sort of ground zero in an aquatic explosion that is slowly rumbling nationwide -- and more than 100 parks directors, city managers and elected officials from across the country will come here in August to attend a training school for people interested in building and operating similar municipal aquatic and recreational palaces. In 2000, its first year, the training school drew people from 18 states, including both coasts and Alaska.

Colorado has hosted such a design school for 15 years, with more than two dozen pools and aquatic facilities to visit, including indoor leisure pools and outdoor wave pools. "We've actually gotten to the point where we have too many sites -- we have to drop some of them off the list," says Cindy Shewmake, committee chair for Colorado's Recreation Facility Design and Management School. She attributes the building boom in Colorado to its sunny weather, growing population and active, recreation-oriented residents. But now it is facing competition from -- Missouri? That has Shewmake perplexed. "I don't know why that is," she says. "I don't know why it would be happening in Missouri."

The aquatic parks and recreation centers are so popular here that voters in several cities have approved large tax increases to build them while turning down more money for their public schools.

Dave Ostlund, executive director of the Missouri Park and Recreation Association, says a half-cent sales tax, authorized by the Legislature in the mid-1990s for local parks and stormwater improvements, is one factor that has St. Louis "leading the nation in terms of this type of development." The sales-tax legislation, which gave the state's municipalities a way to fund these expensive recreation projects, "was the most important development for parks and recreation in Missouri in 25 years," he says. Unlike a property tax, which only directly affects a community's homeowners and businesses, a sales tax hits everybody who shops there. That means nonresidents help foot the bill for recreational facilities they may, in some cases, never use. "Richmond Heights [home of the St. Louis Galleria shopping center] campaigned on that," Ostlund says, estimating the amount of local sales taxes generated there by nonresidents at about 90 percent. "So if their community center cost $15 million, they really probably got one for $1.5 million," Ostlund says. "People figure, 'As long as we're paying for community centers all over the metro area, we might as well do it in our city, too.'"

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